For the second time this season, I’m currently indulging in a Christmas tradition from my childhood: watching 1981′s “A Walt Disney Christmas.”
My sister, Desty, and I have been watching this collection of four short cartoons since before we can even remember it. This half-hour of holiday happiness is carefully preserved at my parents’ house in VHS form. The tape is ensconced in one of those oversize plastic cases, cracked at the spine. It’s so old that the case is emblazoned with the warning that this video is for sale only, that renting it is against the law. (Yes, I’m old enough to view a recording that predates the legality of video rentals, though at least I’m not old enough to remember the pre-rental days. So, I supposed that’s some comfort.)
It just isn’t Christmas until my parents, sister and I have viewed “A Walt Disney Christmas” at least once all together, and we’ve all seen it so many times that we typically sing along and provide commentary on our favorite bits.
“Once Upon a Wintertime,” the first cartoon in the lineup, has been on my mind quite frequently since earlier this fall, when the 50th anniversary edition of “Sleeping Beauty” was released. One of the featurettes about the art of “Sleeping Beauty” specifically mentions the stylized short as one of the best and clearest examples of the work of legendary Disney artist Mary Blair. A McAlester native, Blair also worked on “Sleeping Beauty,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan.”
“Once Upon a Wintertime” follows a couple who takes a sleigh ride through the country to go ice skating. The man and woman are joined by a pair of romantic rabbits, but both the human and bunny couples get into arguments. The ladies storm off, only to get stranded when thin ice breaks. The guys try to save them to no avail, leaving the horses pulling the sleigh and an array of resourceful woodland creatures to pull off a spectacular rescue.
The two middle cartoons are Silly Symphonies shorts from the early 1930s. “Santa’s Workshop” details the bustling activity in the North Pole as the elves, reindeer and Old St. Nick try to get ready for Christmas Eve. “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” continues the story as Santa stops at the home of a large family. Santa and the toys engage in a bit of musical magic but accidentally awaken the youngsters, and Chris Kringle must make a quick getaway to avoid getting caught by the children.
Made in the ’30s, these two cartoons include some material we now consider insensitive, particularly a quick appearance of a black dolly that says “Mamie” and a little boy who is shown briefly in black face, though he gets that way accidentally.
These moments probably are the reason this collection isn’t widely available on DVD. You can find through Amazon.com a few VHS copies of the 1982 version of “A Walt Disney Christmas,” which the Mouse House apparently re-released in 2000. From what I’ve read, the 1982 version included the four cartoons on the 1981 collection plus two more shorts, “On Ice” and “Donald’s Snow Fight.”
The fourth and final cartoon on the 1981 “A Walt Disney Christmas” is “Pluto’s Christmas Tree,” in which Mickey Mouse and his faithful pooch go into the forest to cut down an evergreen. They inadvertently pick the tree inhabited by mischievous chipmunks Chip and Dale. Once they take it home and get it decorated, Pluto spots the rodents, who taunt the dog as he tries to inform the oblivious Mickey.
My younger son, Gabe, who recently turned 2, watched “A Walt Disney Christmas” this year while visiting my parents. He came home full of tales of Monkey Mouse, the dog, chick-unks and the “BIG MESS.”
It sounds like the tradition is on track to continue.